Group looking to petition Norfolk casino project following land sale vote


NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A group of residents is setting out to collect 4,000 signatures in the next 30 days in hope of reversing city council’s recent action on a proposed waterfront casino.

“If we can get 4,000 signatures, that’s all we need,” said Lisa Suhay, a Norfolk resident. “That’s not a giant number.”

Suhay is one of five who helped start “Say NO to the Norfolk Casino.” A Facebook page and website were made following Tuesday’s council meeting in which an agreement to sell 13.25 acres of land next to Harbor Park to the Pamunkey Indian Nation was approved by a 7-1 vote. Councilwoman Andria McClellan voted against it.

Indeed, a section of the city charter allows for residents to petition a city council action with registered voter signatures. If the threshold is met within the time limit, a judge could order a referendum on the council vote.

“[Residents] woke people up last night when [council members] ignored that survey,” Suhay said. “People are hot.”

Just over 70-percent of respondents to a survey conducted by several Norfolk civic leagues stated they wanted to hold off on making a decision about the casino, while only 43-percent were totally against the idea outright.

“We feel there were key stakeholders that were left out,” Suhay said.

She echoed concerns brought by McClellan the week prior, including the need for an economic impact study on downtown and what it is going to do for downtown businesses.

Wednesday evening, the owner of the Brick House Brew Pub on Granby street also showed his dissatisfaction.

“Sadly, Norfolk tends to look at the too-rosy picture – how much can be ‘made’ by taxes & other gains from a casino in order to close the budget gap they & predecessors created,” the post read. “But, as w/the majority of decisions, they seemingly fail to consider & measure the impact on small businesses, esp. restaurants.”

10 On Your Side reached out to the owner for an interview, we did not hear back.

Other economic development projects in the region, such as the potential redevelopment of Virginia Beach’s “Dome Site,” conducted displacement studies.

For instance Stone planning, the firm that worked with Virginia Beach to complete an entertainment venue feasibility study, found that event center portion of the project could pull events away from existing venues of a similar size in Hampton Roads. Mainly, Portsmouth’s Atlantic Union Bank & Trust Pavilion and Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall and the NorVa. 

While the Pamunkey’s are on record saying there is potential now for an additional 750-seat entertainment facility, Norfolk City Spokeswoman Lori Crouch explained no studies of the like have been conducted because “the exact scope and size of the project is not yet known.”

Former City Manager Doug Smith said earlier this month that what is ultimately built will depend on market conditions.

It is also important to point out that “the Dome” project is a public-private partnership. Norfolk is providing no incentives to the Pamunkey’s.

Current plans call for between 3,500 to 4,500 slot machines, up to 225 table games, three to five on-site restaurants, a 750-seat entertainment facility, spa and waterfront promenade.

Smith estimated the city could see $5 million in revenue annually if the casino had at least 750 slot machines and 25 table games.

Ownership doesn’t change immediately and the Pamunkey’s will essentially pay $100,000 a year for up to five years to have the city reserve the land for them until one of two pathways toward opening a casino becomes more clear.

Legislation that would allow gaming in five cities, including Portsmouth and Norfolk, is currently being studied in Richmond.

If lawmakers approve the bill in the next legislative session, and a majority of voters in Norfolk approve in 2020, the Pamunkey’s could open a commercial casino by 2022, the city’s interim economic development director said.

But the deadline Suhay and those working with her must meet Oct. 24th. That’s when the signatures must be in the hands of the city clerk in order to force the issue.

“Never make a mistake by having more stakeholders and more engagement,” Suhay said. “You know what if in the end, if they do a referendum and we found that this is a good thing to do and people change their minds? They can get the full support of the voting public. Isn’t that a better idea?”

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